The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has released its final plan to refurbish a dam on the Saranac River near Plattsburgh.
The Imperial Dam is just over 3 miles upstream from Lake Champlain on the Saranac River in Plattsburgh. Built in 1903 to provide power to an adjacent and now closed wallpaper mill, the dam stopped generating hydroelectricity in 1986.
Proposals to reconfigure the dam have been discussed for decades including lowering or removing it.
In the late 1990’s the state provided funding for a fish ladder which has yet to be constructed. The newly completed DEC plan includes the installation of a fish ladder that allows landlocked Atlantic salmon in Lake Champlain access to about 10 miles of historic spawning habitat. The state also plans to repair the dam’s outlet gate and reconfigure the spillway and lower its embankment.
Trout Unlimited Lake Champlain Chapter President Rich Redmond says they’ve been working for years to get the dam removed so that salmon and trout can move through the river. “A long term goal would be to get rid of the dog-gone thing and restore the river back to its natural ways so the salmon could go back up there, kayakers could come down and do whatever they want to do, hikers and all that stuff and you wouldn’t have the dam in the way. But now DEC they really don’t want to take it down. That’s basically the main argument. They want to keep it because they say it’s more economical to repair it.”
The dam currently is classified as Class C High Hazard meaning any failure could result in severe downstream damage.
When the wallpaper mill closed the building converted to the Imperial Industrial Park. Property manager Doug Butdorf is glad there’s finally a plan and notes that the classification won’t change. “The hazard condition is relative to what the potential is for damage below the structure. They’re going to connect it to the rock layer below and solidify and armor the earthen side of the dam. That work should reduce risk. But never once, not for a moment, have I ever felt concern for the dam’s safety.”
Several communities in the area passed resolutions supporting replacing the dam with a fish ladder. Town of Plattsburgh Supervisor Michael Cashman said the town passed a resolution backing a method to get salmon further up the Saranac River, realizing that the DEC was unlikely to remove Imperial Dam. “The fish ladder was one of the first proposals that was out there many years ago. In fact it extends into the Governor Pataki era. What we’re very happy about is to see the continued expansion of the project.”
Current Hydro would operate the dam and hopes to produce enough electricity to power 500-600 homes. Partner Joel Herm is enthusiastic about the fish ladder design.
“Our company’s philosophy for hydro development is always ecology over fish first and then hydro. So when we saw that the DEC was doing a quality job of designing the fish ladder that made it interesting for us to see if we could work with the DEC and other stakeholders.”
Imperial Dam renovations and fish ladder construction is expected to begin in 2022 with completion of the project in 2023.